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African Royals

African Royals

by Dave Durbach / 22.06.2010

The Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace is one of the ten match venues of this year’s World Cup. In several ways, it is truly unique: the only community-owned stadium, the only one built on private land, and the only stadium (arguably in World Cup history) to be built in a rural area. And along with Polokwane, Mbombela and Port Elizabeth, it’s probably the stadium you’re least likely to see for yourself.

Although nearby Rustenburg is considered the official host city of the North West, the stadium itself is located in the Rustenburg Valley, in the village of Phokeng, capital of the Royal Bafokeng Nation (RBN), seat of its royal family, and one of the 29 villages in the region that are home to some 300 000 Bafokeng people.

The Tswana-speaking Bafokeng trace their history back to the year 1140. Arguably the most influential king in Bafokeng history was Kgosi August Mokgatle, who reigned from 1834 to 1891. On the advice of Paul Kruger, Mokgatle sent young men to work on the diamond mines in Kimberley to raise capital, pooled community resources and began buying deeds to the land the Bafokeng had already occupied for centuries but were in danger of being repossessed by white settlers. Because blacks were prohibited from owning land at the time, white Lutheran missionaries purchased the farms on their behalf.

33 years after his death, the world’s largest deposits of platinum metals were discovered beneath Bafokeng soil. Over the next 70 years, various attempts were made by government and mining companies to dispossess the Bafokeng of their land rights, all ultimately unsuccessful. Unlike countless other communities throughout South Africa and the world, Mokgatle’s foresight enabled his people to lease the mineral rights and to claim their share of the royalties.

Those royalities, rather than being used to line the pockets of those in power, have been invested to establish a competent administration, civil service and infrastructure, under current monarch, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, 36th King of the Bafokeng. The architect and Hilton College old boy came to power following the death in 2000 of his older brother Kgosi Lebone II, whose vision it had been to build the Sports Palace, years before anyone knew that the World Cup was coming to Mzansi, and who opened the stadium shortly before his death. Upon succeeding his brother, Molotlegi set about “thinking big” – devising his Vision 2020 “masterplan”. His plan takes into account international trends (including for example the US motor industry crash that sent platinum prices plummeting, and the latest wave of land grabs by overseas powers in search of food and energy security), and plots in ambitious detail the development trajectory for his nation, intending eventually to turn the area into a Singapore-style IT hub.

The Bafokeng Nation now find themselves in the enviable position of controlling 1400km2 of the world’s largest platinum reserves (75% of the world’s platinum comes from here). With the steady income from platinum, they’ve set about diversifying their investments, racking up a cool R30-billion by the end of last year, the profits of which are invested on a relatively small group of 300 000 people. Though still subject to South African laws, the Bafokeng are doing things their way, for their own good.

Huge amounts of money are being invested in education, sport, and tourism, with the RBN eager to cash in on Phokeng’s proximity to Sun City and the Pilanesburg National Park. The new Bafokeng Sports Campus, which includes the five-star Royal Marang Hotel, is so well-equipped that the England football team decided to set up their base camp here, a major coup for the Bafokeng Nation.

For all the talk of World Cup white elephants elsewhere in the country, the stadium and the campus are part of a clear vision for the future. Millions have been spent across the kingdom’s 29 villages on roads, housing, clinics, sewerage and education, including an elite school for top students. By 2035, millions more will go toward an art and design centre, a heritage park and several plush housing estates.

On paper at least, it’s a fairytale story that the world’s media have already lapped up, including Time Magazine, the New York Times and the Telegraph. “Throughout history, the Bafokeng adapted and negotiated and maneuvered every change and opportunity that came up,” Sue Cook, an American anthropologist who came to study the Bafokeng and ended up staying to run their planning department, told Time. Expensive “showpieces” such as the stadium are vital, she argues, for giving the area a public face to the rest of the world and for creating opportunities for local people.

Besides the sports campus, hotel and elite school, in the past four years that the nation’s development programme has been up and running, all of the Bafokeng’s main roads have been surfaced; the run-down state health center and four clinics have been refurbished and re-equipped; and there are 12 new mobile clinics and a 24-hour domestic-violence trauma center that has seen 1200 women in 16 months. Only 26 Bafokeng students matriculated in 2005; compared to 320 in 2009. Education administrator Ian McLachlan told Time that he has witnessed “mind blowing” change in the area’s 55 school schools.

Another key aspect of the King’s plans are to compile and preserve details of Bafokeng history. One such project, “Mining the Future: The Bafokeng Story”, is being published this month by Jacana Media.

However, on the day of the recent game between Ghana and Australia, which ended in a hard-fought draw, most of the people I spoke to in Phokeng were yet to feel the benefits of their Nation’s growing fortune. Many of them saw the opportunities actually restricted during the month-long FIFA lockdown.

Papi, 22, believes that poverty here has actually gotten worse in recent times. Chicco, 28, is a DJ who also works at the petrol station next to the stadium, which is closed on match days due to FIFA regulations. Both Papi and Chicco, like many others in the area, are treating the Cup more as a vacation than an opportunity. While enjoying a drink at a bar close to the stadium, Chicco gets handed a ticket to today’s game a few minutes before kick-off, with a $120 price tag on it, for mahala. Although he was in the midst of the opening celebrations while visiting family in Diepkloof, Soweto last week, “I wasn’t feeling it before,” he says, “but now that I’ve got a ticket….”

His buddy Tsepo, 26, is home on vacation from his college in Pretoria, where he studies finance and accounting, and works for the Pan African Students’ Movement (the youth league of the PAC). He is a committed socialist who says that thus far, at least, it is FIFA, and not the local community, who has benefited most from Cup-related development in the area. As in the rest of the country, local entrepreneurs have been shut out. Tsepo’s mother, for example, usually earns money hawking goods in the area, but has been forced to lay low during the tournament.

“Rustenburg is a rural area now,” says Tsepo. “It’s not developed. It’s just the mines here. Everything is platinum here… The Bafokeng have privatized the nation‘s resources, so it belongs to them. They are in South Africa, but they belong to themselves. The Bafokeng nation is wealthy. Platinum is big. We export internationally. We are globalizing. I am a member of the PAC myself, but in Phokeng, there’s no politicians. We just rule ourselves. We rule it like Botswana, except Botswana is independent. Royal Bafokeng is a nation. Now I compare it to the European empires: it’s all about the bloody fokkin’ cash!”

And while the residents of Phokeng remain poor, Tsepo is optimistic about how the World Cup has helped to bring South Africans together, and opened up previously hidden corners of the country, like Phokeng, to international visitors, such as the groups of Aussies enjoying the cheap booze at two shebeens across the street from the stadium. “I’m a South African, my brother. There’s something that separates us, that is history, cos one person is white, another is black. But I don’t want to dwell on it. What I want is just to be united. We are friends. Forever, I’m telling you; not just for the World Cup.”

Although only a two hour drive away, Phokeng seems a lot further from the hustle and bustle of Joburg or Pretoria. Those who live here seem content to enjoy the more relaxed pace of life, even if this means fewer opportunities, for now. However, here more than anywhere else perhaps, once the party is over and FIFA clears out, residents can hope for continued development. Unlike many others elsewhere in the country, they realize that the World Cup is far from a free meal ticket. Rather it’s a month-long event that few will be able to cash in on. Thanks to the foresight and commitment of its leaders, and the platinum on the soles of their shoes, so to speak, the Royal Bafokeng Nation have used the Cup as a stepping stone to future prosperity.

All images © Dave Durbach and www.bafokeng.com

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I demand they share this huge wealth with their fellow South Africans. We are one people. They are not a nation unto themselves. What happened to ubuntu?

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  2. Anon2 says:

    What for? So it can get lost in corruption, like so much other money? They can make a much bigger difference using their money within their own community, as they have been doing for years.
    I just wish Fifa would allow the host country to benefit more than they do.

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  3. spoiler says:

    Herr Durbach, this Bafokeng success story is a strong argument for federalism. More financial and legislative control in the hands of smaller communities where the administrators are closer to the people on the ground and therefore less immune to scrutiny if corruption and blatant self-interest take hold.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    You are all being anti-revolutionary. What is this tendency? this selfish tendency. An injury to one is an injury to all.



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  5. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant recount of a truly innovative development porject. I’ve followed these guys for some time now, and – believe me – in Africa this is change you can believe in.

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  6. Moose says:

    They rightfully own the land and are entitled to royalties on mineral concessions like any other private owner in this country. Whether that’s a good thing is another story.

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  7. Vast resources but few progression says:

    You know it is very suprisingly how “The Royal Bafokeng Family” has all the access to the fundamental access to resources both raw/natural and financial/capital , what i want to clearify is Royal Bafokeng a Tribe or a Group of people as a family? I just cant understand that people in this deep rural area cant see that people dont have basic infrastructure maybe they dont understand whats the meaning of basic, things like PROPER Housing, sanitation, water and electricity and sufficient road and rail infrastructure. Building a stadium is an achievement that we need to apriciate and move on from its progress. We need fast development in Royal Bafokeng Because we cant always live in the future while people are suffering currently, The tribe should start to weak up and start demanding progress , i mean people from Rustenburg or even Royal bafokeng cant even talk about their area when they are in Gauteng or Western Cape because there is less progress for the people who have to wake up in The worlds richest platinum reservs but with dusty roads. Why should Black people still suffer after the long dark days of APARtheid , is it because we are still married to our tradition of kings and queens that still lack us human development? or is it mismanagemet. I am a Black person but i surely know that if Royal Bafokeng was a WHITE nation development could have been far with threving economy and decrease in rural area and unemployment…

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  8. BUTIKI says:

    My name is BUTIKI SETEFANE MOFOKENG, and I am running a small business of ESTATE AGENT in EASTEN FREE STATE. As we are BAFOKENG NATION how life in EASTEN FREE STATE how can we have fund from our brother wood to get our small business sustainable in EASTEN FREE STATE. If we are really one NATION, let us come together all over were we are.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    Good for the Bafokeng, Botswana is certainly worthy of emulation, and did you know that their rulers are actually related to the Khamas of Botswana? Vusi Kunene plays the Bafokeng king’s grandfather Chief Tshekedi Khama in “A United Kingdom”.

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